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5 iconic producers who were also veterans

Joel Searls Avatar
Saul Zaentz, Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher and Michael Douglas posing with their Oscars at the 1976 Academy Awards on March 30, 1976. Wikimedia Commons.

Producers play a key role in a production as they ensure the director’s vision is met and that the film gets completed. It is a tough job and it requires a savvy individual or more to handle it. These producers made great films and served in the military, some with surprising results.

1. Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. comes from royalty in Hollywood, most notably as the son of Douglas Fairbanks who made a name for himself in the silent era of cinema. His father played Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro and The Thief of Baghdad and was one of the founding members of United Artists. Fairbanks Jr. grew up around Hollywood and studied at private schools, one being Harvard Military school, which is now known as the Harvard-Westlake School. He started out acting at age 13 in Stephen Steps Out and moved into working more production roles. He found his way back to the screen in Stella Dallas for Sam Goldwyn. Fairbanks Jr. then became a leading man in “talkie” films which led to his work alongside Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar. His career continued its meteoric rise through the 30s and early 40s, especially with the hit Gunga Din, which starred Cary Grant. He then commissioned in the U.S. Navy during World War II and took part in the invasion of North Africa.

Fairbanks Jr. put together a special unit named the Beach Jumpers which specialized in deception and psychological warfare. the Beach Jumpers’ mission was to imitate a large-scale landing of troops utilizing a small force. They took part in Operation Husky and Operation Dragoon and his decorations from service include Legion of Merit with bronze V, Silver Star and legion d’honneur, which is the highest French order of merit. He returned to Hollywood in 1947 to star in such pictures as Sinbad the Sailor, The Exile and The Fighting O’Flynn, which he also produced. He continued to act in different features and produced two more films, The Silken Affair and Chase a Crooked Shadow. Fairbanks Jr. worked in TV on such shows Route 66, The Red Skelton Hour and Dr. Kildare. He finished his career with over 100 acting roles and 17 producing credits.

2. Frank Price

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Elizabeth M. Daley, Steven Spielberg, Frank Price, George Lucas, C.L. Max Nikkias and Summer Redstone. Public Domain.

Frank Price, as an executive, was responsible for greenlighting some of the biggest hits in the past 40 years. While at Columbia Pictures he approved Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, Gandhi, The Karate Kid and Ghostbusters. He then moved to Universal Pictures in the mid-1980s and saved Back to the Future from the trash heap as he greenlit the film. He also approved Out of Africa while at Universal too. Price returned to Columbia Pictures in the early 90s and greenlit even more significant films such as Boyz n the Hood, The Prince of Tides and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He served on the USC School of Cinema-Television for nearly 30 years too. Before all of his success, he served in the U.S. Navy in the late 1940s.

3. Saul Zaentz

Michael Douglas, Milos Forman, Louise Fletcher, Jack Nicholson and Saul Zaentz. Public Domain Michael Douglas, Milos Forman, Louise Fletcher, Jack Nicholson and Saul Zaentz. Photo courtesy of csfd.sk.

Saul Zaentz is a legend in the producing business and he won three Best Picture Oscars during his career. He served in the Army in World War II and discovered his passion for music through work at the Jazz at the Philharmonic. Post-service he went to work in the jazz record space at Fantasy Records. By the mid-60s he was signing his own groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival. In the early 1970s, Zaentz then tried his hand at producing and hit it big with his second film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which won Best Picture with Zaentz sharing the award with Michael Douglas. He worked with Milos Forman from Cuckoo on Amadeus, which again won Best Picture. His last Oscar win was for The English Patient. Zaentz’s last film as a producer was again directed by Milos Forman, Goya’s Ghosts.

4. Frank Yablans

Frank Yablans and Diana Ross. Public Domain. Frank Yablans and Diana Ross. Photo courtesy of nytimes.com.

Frank Yablan’s career as an executive was mostly at Paramount Pictures where he supervised the release and marketing of The Godfather I, The Godfather II and Chinatown. He also led the marketing team for the film Love Story at Paramount. More of his films during his work as an indie producer include Silver Streak, Congo and North Dallas Forty. Yablans had a certain touch for movies and helped to usher in New Hollywood films directed by such greats as Francis Ford Coppola and such stars as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, Richard Pryor, Jill Clayburgh, Gene Wilder and Nick Nolte. Prior to all of his successes, he served in the U.S. Army in the late 1940s.

5. John Calley

Maria Bello and John Calley. Photo courtesy of thr.com.

John Calley was the studio executive at Warner Brothers that greenlit The Exorcist and Superman films, which became box office hits, but also seminal cinema classics. He grew up in The Great Depression with a single mom and as a kid worked in a button factory. He later worked as a janitor at his high school. He served in the U.S. Army in the late 1940s as well. He made his way to Hollywood via his start in the mailroom at the NBC HQ in NYC. He eventually made his way to WB and was involved in 120 films during his time at the studio. His produced films include The Cincinnati Kid, Ice Station Zebra, Catch-22, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. He later worked at Sony after his time at WB and helped reinvigorate the studio during his tenure.